On my neighborhood Nextdoor site, I recently saw a post about a lost dog that was found. In response, one person wrote, “Glad this tale/tail has a happy ending.” I started to roll my eyes at her seemingly unnecessary decision to clarify that she was making a pun, but then I stopped. The truth is, I can easily put myself inside her mind. I’m constantly making calculations in my head about whether I should speak “correctly” or speak like most people around me do.
I put correctly in quotes because I’m not as much of a prescriptivist as the title of this post implies. I like how language evolves naturally. I like using “ain’t” instead of the proper conjugation of “to be” when it fits my mood better. I opt for sentence fragments and non-standard punctuation in my writing sometimes to achieve a certain style or flow. I use the descriptive Merriam-Webster dictionary. But precise, uniform language is my career and when people around me know that I’m a professional writer and editor, I feel compelled to speak in textbook English. When I don’t, I feel that, much like my neighbor, I need to hold up a disclaimer to let people know that I am fully aware of the words and syntax I used and that I made an intentional, thoughtful choice. Some of the decisions I deliberate over often are
- between you and me/I
- whether to use the subjunctive case
- data is/are
- whether/if (and “whether or not”)
- whether to use proper comparisons
- using the plural “they” with the singular “someone”
Back to my neighbor, I think she shouldn’t have bothered to try to make the joke if she had predetermined that it wouldn’t work. And I don’t think people should go around correcting other people’s grammar. It’s as if you’ve just seen Gravity or The Martian and you’re sitting around a table with bunch of people discussing the plot, and some yokel starts spouting a bunch of facts regarding everything that makes the movie scientifically inaccurate. No one cares. We go to a movie for the whole movie experience, to escape, not to sit in an astronomy or physics class. And unless someone is paying me for my editorial expertise, they probably don’t care what I have to say about their English. Nor should they.
But when someone incorrectly tries to correct me (like when several people in my critique group insisted I write “knelt” instead of “kneeled” and “a myriad of questions” instead of “myriad questions”) you’d better believe the gloves are coming off à la Conan.